It’s not easy to understand what equipment you need to be able to take astrophotography images.
Those that are teaching it will often go from 0 to 100 real quick, and it’ll jump from basic to gobbledegook before you know it.
In truth, you can get started in astrophotography with some basic equipment and it depends on what you want to shoot if you want to upgrade your gear.
Read our easy-to-understand overview below and we hope you find it helpful.
What equipment do I need for astrophotography?
The answer to this question is that it depends on what you are shooting.
There are broadly three types of astrophotography:
- Landscape – taking pictures of the stars and Milky Way over features on the Earth
- Planetary – taking pictures of the planets in our Solar System, as well as the Sun and Moon
- Deep sky – taking pictures of far off objects like galaxies and nebulae
This infographic gives you a good overview:
To draw this out a little more:
For landscape astrophotography you will need:
- Regular DSLR or mirrorless camera
- Wide angle lens (35mm for a full-frame camera, 24mm or below for an APS-C sensor camera)
A star tracker is also a great piece of gear that will enable you to take longer exposures and better pictures but you can take great landscape astronomy images without one.
For planetary astrophotography you will need:
- Regular DSLR / mirrorless camera or a specialist CCD or CMOS astro camera
- Telephoto lens (85mm to 300mm) or telescope
For deep sky astrophotography you will need:
- Specialist astrophotography camera (eg, CCD or CMOS camera) or adapted DSLR camera with IR filter (like the Canon EOS Ra)
- Telescope – with the camera attached this works in place of a camera lens
- Mount (with tripod)
This is not exclusive and there are many different ways of combining different equipment to shoot what you want for your astro imaging. For example, deep sky photography can be done with a DSLR, telephoto lens, and star tracker but, for the most part, having the right gear will make it easier and give yourself the best chance of capturing great images.
Below we go into more detail on each item of equipment.
DSLR & mirrorless cameras
The easiest way to get going in astrophotography is to use a good, regular camera.
By “regular” we mean that it could be used for any other type of photography, and by “good” we mean that it has to be capable of having the camera settings changed manually. Most commonly, this will mean using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.
It doesn’t have to be the best camera on the market, especially when you are first starting out. We recommend any beginner to first get an entry-level DLSR or similar and learn to push it to its limits. If you already have a camera like this but are unsure if it is good enough for astrophotography, give it a try first. You’ll learn the limits of your camera and be better able to take advantage of any improvements when you upgrade in the future.
The key things for the camera you need for astrophotography are:
- it can have different lenses attached, and
- that you can have full control over key settings like shutter speed, aperture, focus and ISO.
> For more detail on what camera you need and some recommended models, see our article on the best cameras for astrophotography
CCD stands for Charge-Coupled Device, and CMOS is Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor. These are dedicated astrophotography cameras.
If you’ve never seen one before you’ll notice that there are no buttons or controls of any kind, no screen or viewfinder. They are merely small metal boxes which can be a little hard to get your head around.
A CCD camera cannot be autonomously controlled like a regular camera but has to be connected to a computer and operated via software, like a webcam for example.
CCD cameras can capture exposures that can last from minutes to hours and because of this they are well suited for deep sky astrophotography – where you need to gather a lot of light to get an image of an extremely far off object. Once the exposure has finished, the data is sent to the computer for digitization and post-production.
CMOS cameras have traditionally been cheaper and less powerful alternatives to CCDs. In recent years though, the performance of CMOS cameras has caught up so are likely to become more common in the future.
> See our article on the best cameras for astrophotography
The next most important piece of astrophotography equipment is the lens that you attach to the camera.
Lenses that are a fixed focal length (for example, 24mm) are known as prime lenses. Lenses that are a variable focal length (for example, 18-55mm) are known as zoom lenses.
In general, prime lenses are better quality than zoom lenses of similar cost, but lack the flexibility of being able to shoot at different focal lengths.
Most entry-level DSLR cameras come with a standard lens. This is referred to as a “kit lens” and is usually a zoom lens of 18-55mm.
Whilst you can certainly use this lens for astrophotography (and it is definitely worth trying before you buy anything else), it is not perfect for our purposes of shooting amazing pictures of the stars and planets.
Depending on what you want to shoot, you will either need:
- a wide-angle lens, for shooting landscape astrophotography, or
- a telephoto lens, for lunar and planetary photography
> See here for recommendations on the best astrophotography lenses
Having a good, sturdy tripod is vitally important for astrophotography.
When taking astronomy images you will be taking long-exposures which means that your camera will need to stay perfectly still or the image will suffer from distortion. Even the tiniest camera shake can ruin your images.
Carbon fiber tripods are widely considered the best as they are lighter to carry than aluminum alternatives but don’t lose any sturdiness. They do tend to be a little more expensive though.
> See here for our recommendations on the best tripods for astrophotography
When you photograph an astronomy object you are (obviously) pointing your camera at it from your position on Earth and shooting.
Because you are aiming into a dark sky, what you are doing is trying to gather as much light as possible in order to get the best image. Therefore, the longer the exposure, the better the resulting picture because more light has been gathered.
However, because the Earth is constantly rotating it means that what you are photographing is effectively moving while you shoot it (in fact, both you and the object are moving).
This means that if your exposure time is too long you will get distortion on the image. This could be a blurring on a planetary image or trails when photographing stars.
We’ll cover settings and how to best take astronomy images below, but there are ways to work out exactly how long you can have your exposure time based on the camera and lens that you are using. It can range from 5 seconds up to a minute.
Tracking mounts provide a solution to this. They fit between your camera and your tripod and slowly adjust where your camera is pointing according to the rotation of the Earth.
This allows you to stay focused on the object you are photographing longer, and therefore produce better, sharper images.
When combined with a tracking mount, deep sky astrophotography is also possible with a telephoto lens.
> See our overview here of the best star trackers
An intervalometer is a programmable remote shutter that you can use to set exposure time, interval between photos, total number of photos to be taken, and the time delay of the first picture.
This extra functionality can be priceless as you may want to take multiple pictures of the same object in succession. The purpose of this is to then “stack” the images in post-production after (more on this later).
This is a good practice that can bypass the need for a star tracker, although both methods have their merits.
An example of an intervalometer can be found here on Amazon. Just make sure to buy one that is compatible with your camera make and model.
To attach a camera to a telescope for astrophotography you need a couple of things called a T-ring and a T-adapter. This is called the T-mount system (the “T” stands for equipment manufacturer Tamron that devised the system in the 1950’s):
- The T-Ring is the object which fits into your camera where the lens would normally go.
- The T-Adapter is the object that will connect your telescope or lens to your camera.
These pieces of equipment will be different depending on your camera and telescope types so be sure to get the right ones for you.
> See our article on the best telescopes for astrophotography.
A mount is an instrument that fits between your tripod and telescope and very slowly moves where your telescope (or camera) are pointing to compensate for the Earth’s rotation, just like the tracking mount for a camera covered above.
As touched on before, our planet is constantly moving and rotating and to take photos of astronomy objects in the sky you need to focus on them for extended periods of time. This can be anything from a few seconds to minutes, or even weeks and months for more advanced deep-sky photography.
A mount allows you to focus on an object and then track it to allow you to focus on it and photograph for longer period.
This is why it is one of the most important pieces of equipment. See the quote below from an advanced astrophotographer:
“The most important piece of equipment in astrophotography is the mount. We recommend buying the best mount you can afford. You can take a nice image with a great mount and a decent lens but if you had a crappy mount and bad tracking, even the best lens is not going to take a decent image.” – Tolga
> See the best astrophotography mounts here.
A useful bit of kit for when you are out photographing the sky at night time is a headlamp.
Using one of these enables you to have your hands free to operate your camera and set up your equipment in the dark. Nothing fancy is needed and they can be picked up for relatively cheap.
The only feature you will want will be for it to be able to shine red light. This is because under the night sky your eyes adjust to the dark but normal light from a headlamp, torch or phone will ruin your night vision. Red light does not do this.
Depending on your location and time of year, you will need to wrap up warm for extended sessions outside.
Fingerless gloves are recommended so you can still press the buttons on your camera. Just use your common sense and dress appropriately.
To store and carry all your equipment and protect it if you are caught in the rain or other adverse conditions.
Battery backups and safety equipment
This will depend on your circumstances, but, for instance, if you are driving off on your own in the middle of the night to a dark sky site you will want to make sure you are well prepared to get back and stay warm.
You should consider what you would do if your phone battery dies, or there is no cell reception, etc.
What if your car won’t start when you want to head home? Do you have enough water and blankets to keep you warm if you have to hunker down in your car until it’s light? etc etc.
Another article that you may find interesting is our analysis of the equipment (cameras, mounts, telescopes etc.) used by the 100+ finalists in the astronomy photographer of the year contest.
If you have any questions on any of this, please let us know in the comments below.